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Friday 17th June 2011

Working For Simpsons Badge Makers in the 1950s

Simpsons Badge Makers Kings Cross

Working for Simpsons Badge Manufacturers in the 1950s

By Mark Bailey     


Back in the early 1950s I was employed for a time by a company called 'Simpson's' who were Masonic Jewellers and badge makers at their 'Battlebridge Works' in York Way, King's Cross, London (right along side the station). Said company was founded sometime in the 1880s and this no doubt accounted for the fact that the works were indeed Dickensian in every way! By the time I arrived on the scene the founder, one Lawrence (Laurie) Symleson had long gone and the business was being run by his two sons. Around the time of the anti German riots during the First World War he had changed the family name to Simpson.


Well, on arriving for my interview I entered the shop (for the first and only time). It was a wondrous place, dimly lit and in the shadow of the great station. Nevertheless all the many items on show, gleaming gold, lacquered polished brass and enamel, plus the embroidered regalia caught the light and delighted the eye. However once I became an employee things changed and I was forbidden to enter the shop ever again. Out of sight of the customers, the works  by comparison was a dark and dingy place. Discipline was strict to the point of verging on dictatorship, and there was little joy amongst the work force, particularly when the governors were about!  however the work was interesting, and seeing the finished products gleaming in that miserable place was something of a tonic to all concerned. , there was no greater joy or appreciation of those regalia and jewels more than that of those harassed workers who had worked to produce them


By and large the staff put up with both the conditions and 'difficult' management style, however I found it overpowering. That said, there were lighter moments. One of the people who worked there was Con, an Irish lad . The poor chap was rather simple, and put me in mind of 'Smike' in the Dickens story 'Nicholas Nickleby' He performed all the odd and dirty jobs, even tearing up old newspapers for use in the staff toilets. In spite of being greatly put upon by his employers, he was grateful that he had any kind of employment. However from time to time something would upset him (occasionally one of the staff would deliberately wind him up!) At this point he would grab at anything to hand (on one occasion an axe!) and chase whoever had upset him all around the works until he calmed down. This caused the workforce much amusement as whenever he went wild the two Simpson brothers locked themselves in the office or shop until Con ran out of steam. During my time there he never actually caught up with his tormentors, however the thought of what might happen if he ever did was disturbing to say the least!


We were permitted a cup of tea  mid morning and in the afternoon, made and delivered by one of the women embroidery workers, but were given no time to drink it, so it sat on the bench and you took sips of it as and when you could. When working on a difficult or complex job the brew might stand for a little while. If the eldest brother happened to be prowling around (which he often did) he would then order you to drink it up, and stood over you until you did!

One day whilst working alone in a little used workshop at the rear of the works, I noticed a door at the other end. Being inquisitive by nature, and wondering where it led I discovered that not only was it unlocked, but lead into an adjoining company warehouse which was used to store sweets! That door must have been unlocked for years and no one had ever discovered it. Needless to say, I quite enjoyed my (all too short) time in solitary confinement!


The company were well known for producing not only Masonic items for such as the 'RAOB' and related 'Knights of the Golden Horn' but also many trade badges including those for the 'Alba Radio Company' and the scientific instrument makers 'Nagretti & Zambra' as well as the usual kinds of lapel badges and the like. Some of the workshops were lined with shelves stacked with steel blocks, usually about three inches square, each one featuring a die for a particular item. Who made these I have no idea, possibly an outsourced tool maker. In my ignorance I presumed that perhaps the dies for both the 'Hornby Railway Company' and 'Meccano Guild' badges were amongst them!


When in use a die was fitted in to the heavy press in the main workshop and whilst being fed with metal blanks everything and everyone nearby were only to well aware it was in use!


The tubs of stamped out blanks were then handed back to the bench workers who then trimmed them down to outline of the emblem concerned using a piercing saw, drills and files. Items made using gold or silver had all the offcuts and filings collected in leather apron fitted to the edges of the specially shaped benches. The trimmed items were then had the backs cleaned up on an 'endless band' emery table, after this they went back to the bench and were laid face down onto the die (which had been removed from the press) One then had the job of stamping the makers name on the rear, by hand. Care had to be taken to locate the badge accurately, otherwise the previously pressed image could be damaged and the job ruined.


From here they went to the brazing shop where fittings (such as the familiar crescent shaped stud) would be fitted. Until then the items had looked quite presentable, however after the brazing treatment they were all discoloured and messy with flux, however after a dip in the acid bath they came out gleaming and were then passed to the plating or enamel shop. This last mentioned place was very special for it was here that the (coloured) powered glass (known as 'frit') was placed into the indentations on the products and then fired up in a furnace until the frit melted. Depending on the detailing, colouring and complexity of the design the 'job' could go through several firings, part of the skill involved being to see that the right colour of 'frit' was in the proper place (errors were not unknown, and God help the worker who made one!)


By now the badge looked a real mess, odd bits of cured frit sticking out and the metal totally discoloured, however a return to the acid bath soon put things right and after polishing a quick spray of cellulose lacquer finished the job off a treat. Of course there was much more to it than that, miniature chain making, plus the important embroidery section, however I fear we are now straying off the beaten track. 


One of the problems for me working there was that I lived some miles away in Harringay and had a very long cycle ride to and from King's Cross, a journey that took in two rather steep hills, the worst one being in the Caledonian Road, which in those days was surfaced with cobbles. Never a day passed without something breaking or coming lose on my bike, never mind the fact that it also shook the life out of me, particularly on the down hill run at the end of the day!  The Simpson's refused to let me park it in the works, however I was able to get permission to leave it in the warehouse of the company next door. (Prior to this arrangement, I was forced to travel to work by bus and it was almost impossible to arrive on time).  Lateness was not accepted by the Simpson's, unless it was they who arrived late. whilst in the meantime the workforce waited (sometimes in the rain) for the staff door to be unlocked.

Things were made worse for me by the fact that being only 15 years old, I was limited to a certain number of working hours. This did not fit in with the ideals of the owners, so that when I reached my clocking off time on Friday afternoons, I had to stand and wait outside the office for an hour or more before being given my wage packet! Needless to say I soon decided to look for a happier  (and closer to home) employment. That said, had the governors been a little more human, I could have been quite happy there.


Mark Bailey


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About the author

Frank Setchfield is the author of The Official Badge Collectors Guide from the 1890s to the 1980s and has written countless articles on badges for various publications.

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